Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Chuck Berry is the father of rock n’roll music. In the post-war world, the kind of refined rhythm and blues music that Berry played would help define a generation that its idols were James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause(1955) and Marlon Brando from The Wild One(1953). His songs were easily relatable as they dealt with everyday events such as high school, fast cars, and prom dances. For an upcoming generation of teenagers this was revolutionary. There had never before had there been music that spoke directly to and for the youth. It was also through this revolutionary style, and considerable airplay, that he and many artists helped bridge the gap between white and black music communities. His style would further influence rock’n’roll icons as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.
Charles Edward Anderson Berrywas born into a middle class family on October 28, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. There, he grew up in a family proud of their African-American and Native American ancestry. He was the fourth of six children. His father was a contractor and a deacon at the local Baptist church, while his mother was a qualified principal. He would gain a love for music through his attendance at church,where he and his family would participate in the choir.
Berry gained an appreciation for country-western and blues, which he heard on the radio.He took music classes at Sumner High School and in 1941, at the age of fourteen, he would play his first performance at the high school. Just three years later he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery of three stores in Kansas City and stealing a car at gun point. According to Berry’s own biography, he flagged down a passing car after his car broke down and stole it with a non-functioning pistol. He was sentenced to three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men in Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri. While incarcerated he took up boxing and even started a quartet.
On his 21st birthday in 1947, Chuck Berry was released from the reformatory. After his release he worked in an auto plant, studied hairdressing, and even worked as a janitor. During this time he met Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, who he later married in 1948. She would give birth to his first child, Darlin Ingrid Berry, on October 3rd, 1950.
To support his family he performed gigs at several local clubs to bring in some extra income. He had been playing the blues since his teens and was heavily influenced by T-Bone Walker, who was another giant in the R&B scene. He borrowed his guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from Walker and also started taking guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris. This is where he began to develop the foundation for his soon to be famous guitar style. Then by early 1953 he began to play with the Johnnie Johnson’s Trio. Berry and Johnson collaborated over many of the hits that would later be primarily credited to Berry. Years later this would be a source of tension between the two.
The Johnnie Johnson’s Trio band primarily played the blues and ballads. However, the most popular music with “white” audiences in the area was country. Berry had been influenced by both the blues and country music from an early age. He decided to start playing country to the black audiences. Berry gained a reputation as a black hillbilly, but his audiences enjoyed what he was dishing out. These performances would produce a style that combined country and R&B along with Berry’s Nat “King” Cole style of singing. This would bring in a wide range of audience, many of who were white.
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In May 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago and met his idol Muddy Waters at a gig. He asked Muddy Waters how he might be able to get a recording contract. Waters directed him to the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess who owned Chess Records. Chess records was a blues label that had signed greats like Bo Diddly and Howlin Wolf. He met Leonard and was quickly signed on and began recording in the summer of 1955. During the summer he recorded “Maybellene.” This song would be placed 5th in the pop charts and would top out at number 1 in the R&B charts. “Maybellene” went on to sell over a million records in 1955.
The following three years he would appear in two early Alan Freedrock’n roll filmsRock RockRock (1965) and Go, Johnny, Go (1959) and guest stared on ABC’s Guy Mitchell Showin 1957. During which he sang his hit “Rock ‘n Roll Music.” In Rock Rock Rock, he performed “You Can’t Catch Me” and in Go, Johnny, Go, he had a speaking roll and performed many of his hits, including “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Little Queenie,” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
By this time Berry was becoming a house hold name, he had a large number of hit records including “Johnny B. Goode.”. Berry had made several movies and TV show appearances, and so far had a lucrative touring career. He had also established an integrated night club in St. Louis, called Berry’s Club Band Stand. However, this was not enough to protect him from the law. In December of 1959 he was charged for violating the Mann Act, a law that was meant to prohibit white slavery, but amended to include human trafficking. He was tried for transporting a minor across state lines. In his account, he had hired a 14-year-old Apache waitress, and transported her across state lines to work as a hat check girl at his night club.
His first trial lasted two weeks, he was found guilty, but was appealed due to the judge’s racist comments and jury bias prejudices. The appeal was upheld and the second trial began in May and would go through June 1961. While all this was going on he still recorded and played gigs. Berry was eventually convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. After another failed appeal, he was sent to prison and served a year and a half. He was released in October of 1963.
Luckily for Berry, soon after his release the cultural phenomenon surrounding the British Invasion was occurring. In 1964, bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles came to the United States, and were playing covers of Chuck Berry’s hits. Soon to be rock ‘n roll legends Keith Richards and John Lennon had grown up listening to his music, and were further inspired to play rock’n’roll. This invasion would keep up a public interest in Berry’s music.
He was able to capitalize on the success of the invasion by having a successful tour in the UK. In the states he played big events, including the Schaefer Music Festival. Though he proved to be a big hit live, and could still draw a crowd, he did not receive the same amount of recording success during this time as he had during the 50’s. He produced several hits between 1964-65 such as “Nadine” in 1963 and “No Particular Place to Go” in 1964. He even recorded five albums between 1966 and 1969. Unfortunately, none would prove to be as popular as a novelty recording “My Ding a Ling”recorded in 1968, with the live version in 1972 reaching number one in the charts.
During the 1970’s, Chuck Berry constantly toured. This time however he did not bring a band. He only brought his Gibson guitar. Berry was confident that he could hire a local band anywhere he went, and that they would already know his music. While on the road he played with future rock stars, including Bruce Springsteen.
Due to stunts like these Berry’s reputation suffered, and his performances became increasingly erratic. His choosing to work with terrible back up bands would result in out-of-tune and sloppy performances. This would hurt his reputation with the new generation of rockers as well as the old. To complicate matters even more, he was arrested a third time, this time for tax evasion. While touring, he would always be paid in cash, which lead to accusations of tax income tax evasion from the IRS. This time he pled guilty, served four months in prison and performed 1000 hours of community service. In 1990, Berry was also sued for installing a video camera in the women’s restroom in his restaurant. Despite Berry’s claim that the installation was to catch a suspected worker for stealing, he chose to proceed with a class action settlement with a reported 59 women.
On June 1st, 1979 President Jimmy Carter requested that Chuck Berry play at the White House. In 1977 the punk movement blew out of major cities in the western world. In urban metropolises from London to New York, punk bands came out of the woodworks determined to start rock ‘n roll over. Punk band legends such as the Sex Pistols and The Toy Dolls performed covers of his hits such as “Johnny B. Goode” and “No Particular Place to Go.”This kept his style and musical influence alive and well for the next generation of rockers to roll with. Admittingly when Berry heard some of the punk groups, he wasn’t quite impressed, but managed to see similarities with his own music.
Performing with Keith Richards for Chuck’s 60th birthday concert for the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll in the 1980s. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns
In 1986, Taylor Hackford made a documentary about Berry. This documentary also happened to cover his 60th birthday celebration organised by Keith Richards. The celebration brought in talent from Julian Lennon to Eric Clapton. During the performance he played a Gibson ES-355, a posh version of the guitar that he performed with in the 70’s. In 1986, Berry was also inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of fame for his contribution to the genre he defined.
In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked Berry fifth in “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”. Well into his 80s, Berry continued to tour and play every month from 1996 to 2014 at the Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. In 2016, Berry announced that he would be releasing a new studio album, Chuck in 2017 through Dualtone . It will be his first album in 38 year—since Rock It (1979)— and is dedicated to his wife.
Sadly Berry passed away on March 18, 2017 at the age of 90. Although the king has left the building, his influence and legend will live on. His contributions will be unforgettable, as any impressionable young upstart that wishes to play rock’n’roll will first have to learn his riffs. Not only that, but his hit single “Johnny B. Goode” was recorded and attached to the Voyager spacecraft as a symbol of America’s cultural contributions to humanity through music. It is currently hurtling it’s way through outer space and deep into the cosmos. A true sign that thanks to Berry, rock n’ roll is here to stay and will never die.
Rest in power Chuck Berry.
By Nick Kuzmack